India is a racist nation. This isn't news. Every once in a while, though, we get a terrible reminder of how this Indian racism can turn violent – and tragic, as with a Congolese man who was allegedly beaten to death in Delhi last week. The matter is so serious that African envoys from 42 nations decided on Tuesday to boycott annual Africa Day celebrations in Delhi, saying the community was still in a state of mourning over the most recent incident.
"The Group of African Heads of Mission have met and deliberated extensively on this latest incidence in the series of attacks to which members of the African community have been subjected to in the last several years,” Eritrean Ambassador Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, who is also dean of the Group of African Heads of Mission, said in a statement.
It added: “They strongly condemn the brutal killing of this African and calls on the Indian government to take concrete steps to guarantee the safety and security of Africans in India.”
The decision from the African envoys came after an emergency meeting of the Group of African Heads of Mission on May 24, a day before Africa Day, where they decided not to participate in the celebration. The event has now been deferred. It also comes as a rather public rebuke of India's diplomatic response to these incidents when the African envoys prefer to make their sentiments heard through a public statement.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly moved to limit the damage. It put out a statement calling the death of Masunda Kitada Oliver "very unfortunate" and condemned it unequivocally. The statement also pointed out that Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh has been deputed to meet Heads of Missions of African countries to assure them of the government's efforts to improve safety and security.
That said, the statement also included a bit of pushback, with a reference to comments from Amar Sinha, Secretary (Economic Relations), the MEA diplomat who handles relations with Africa.
"Secretary (ER) also pointed out that all criminal acts should not be seen as racially-motivated. Thousands of African students continue to pursue their education in India without any issues. Government of India deeply values its relations with foreign students, particularly those from Africa with which India has had a historically close relationship. We will ensure that African students continue to find a welcome home in India and such unfortunate incidents do not recur."
Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj took to Twitter to address the issue as well.
That's right. The Minister of External Affairs said the government would be launching a sensitisation program, but claimed that its focus would be reiterating that "such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country".
On the off chance that you may think this was a slip of the tongue, Swaraj (or her social media team) went ahead and pinned the tweet to highlight it on her feed.
You could either see this as of a piece with the Narendra Modi government approach to policymaking in general: The effort here is to manage the image, rather than the symptom. So instead of a sensitisation campaign to address the problem of racism in India, Swaraj says it will be focused on telling people that being racist is embarrassing for the country.
But this may also be Swaraj simply keeping up with the times. Solving the problem of Indian racism through a sensitisation campaign seems like an impossibility. But in this Bharat Mata-ki-Jai age of public shaming for innocuous matters, patriotic chest-thumping and arms training and goons enforcing their idea of Indian nationalism on the streets, what better way to attack racism than by convincing the new guardians of the Indian republic that it makes their shining desh look bad?